Vol 29, Issue 10 Print Issue

State Representative J.M. Lozano announces that he's switching to the Republican Party during a press conference Thursday at the Republican Party of Texas.
State Representative J.M. Lozano announces that he's switching to the Republican Party during a press conference Thursday at the Republican Party of Texas.

Campaign Chatter

After weeks with no political maps, and with an impending deadline to a week of filings, the political activity has picked up considerably.

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Supplementing the U.S. State Department’s warning about travel to Mexico, Texas authorities issued their own advisory this week, cautioning students against traveling to Mexico during spring break. Department of Public Safety officials discouraged travel even to resort areas, citing statistics that have worsened noticeably over the past several years. In addition to the report that 120 U.S. citizens died in Mexico last year versus 35 in 2007, the advisory detailed other criminal activities that could target Americans, including kidnapping and carjacking. Mexico’s ambassador objected to the advisory, questioning Texas authorities’ conclusions.

While the fate of the Women’s Health Program is still unclear, groups are protesting the program’s likely demise. Texas has butted heads with the federal government over the program, for which the Obama administration has said it will deny funding after Texas passed a law excluding Planned Parenthood from the program. In response to the clamor over the program, which provides reproductive screenings and services for low-income women, Austin musician Marcia Ball this week organized a rally at the Capitol that drew hundreds of protesters.

An organization of private schools is drawing more unwelcome attention this week after revelations that it denied admission to a Houston-area Islamic school. The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, known as TAPPS, first stirred up controversy when it appeared unwilling to accommodate a Jewish school in scheduling a basketball playoff game; that was rescheduled after parents threatened legal action. Now the association is being accused of unfairly denying admission to the Muslim school after posing inappropriate questions to its principal, Cindy Steffens.

An analysis of census data shows that Houston has surpassed New York and Los Angeles as the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the country. The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, along with the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, produced the report, which looked at data from the censuses of 1990, 2000 and 2010. The suburban areas of Pearland and Missouri City were named the most diverse in their metropolitan areas, with the city of Houston itself remaining more segregated.

Blue Cross Blue Shield has long run the state’s employee health plan, but that may be coming to an end. The Employees Retirement System board voted to let United Health Care Services run the administrative portion of the health plan, with an estimated savings to the state of $25 million. Blue Cross has filed a formal protest asking that the process used in awarding the contract be reviewed. Employees insured under ERS number more than 438,000.

Adding to the ongoing drama over the Formula One racetrack project, the original promoter of the track, Tavo Hellmund, is suing the principal investors and companies involved in the track's construction. Hellmund claims that he is owed an $18 million buyout and that the project has been poorly managed and underfunded. Plans for the race, scheduled for Nov. 18, are proceeding, and investors Bobby Epstein and Red McCombs have not yet responded to the allegations in the civil suit.

El Paso has shown a dramatic increase in the number of food stamp recipients within the last year. The number increased from 140,336 to 180,287 from January 2011 to January 2012 — a 28 percent increase in overall benefits. Experts theorized that the jump is related to the recession, but also to the ongoing violence in Juárez. Residents who could shop for inexpensive goods in the border city no longer feel safe doing so, and others have fled to El Paso for safety and are struggling to make ends meet.

If the coming summer lives up to expectations, Texans could again face the threat of rolling blackouts. That’s the assessment of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid. A report from the council revealed a drop in megawatts available and predicted heavy demand during the hot summer months. ERCOT concluded that conservation will be the sole tool it has in the short run to avoid forced blackouts.

Rice farmers downstream from Central Texas’ Highland Lakes face an uncertain future after the Lower Colorado River Authority cut off their water supply. The record drought forced the LCRA’s hand as it assessed that the reservoirs would come up about a billion gallons short. Demand on the Highland Lakes has grown with the population of Central Texas. Farmers are looking for alternative solutions: So-called off channel reservoirs that can be built below the lakes are under consideration. They’re also looking at rice that’s genetically modified to require less water. But these things take time and money, and the rice farmers say they can only get by for one year without a steady water supply.

Political People and their Moves

John Tintera, executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, is leaving the agency. That abrupt change followed, by about a week, the ascension of Commissioner Barry Smitherman to the chairman's seat. Tintera was with the agency for 22 years, serving as ED for the last three. He'll be replaced on an interim basis by Polly McDonald, who runs the agency's pipeline safety division.

Zak Cover, a former aide to Gov. Rick Perry, is the new executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He's been at the agency since 2009, most recently as deputy to Mark Vickery, who is retiring from the ED job.

Covar isn't the only Perry aide moving up. The Texas Department of Public Safety hired Katherine Cesinger as director of communications, where she will head up the Media and Communications Office. For the last several years, including her time as the governor's press secretary, she has served as the chief spokeswoman for border security, homeland security and emergency management issues in Texas.

Robert Durón, who has served as superintendent of the San Antonio and Socorro school districts, will join the Texas Education Agency as deputy commissioner for finance and administration, effective April 1.

The National Association of Regulatory Commissioners appointed Texas Public Utility Commissioner Rolando Pablos to serve on its committee on International Relations. Pablos is a former honorary consul to Spain, playing a key role in promoting trade between the U.S. and Spain. He is also a former chairman of the San Antonio Free Trade Alliance.

Gov. Perry named Ruben Reyes of Lubbock chairman and appointed eight members to the Governor’s Criminal Justice Advisory Council. Reyes is judge of the 72nd Judicial District Court in Lubbock and Crosby counties and presiding judge of the Lubbock County Adult Drug Court. Joel Bennett is an Austin attorney and a judge for the Travis County Drug Court. Robb Catalano of Fort Worth is judge of Criminal District Court No. 3 iand a former assistant Tarrant County district attorney. Alan "Clay" Childress of Leander is a drug court officer for the Burnet County Adult Probation Department. Mary Covington of Houston is special programs manager for the Harris County District Court. Becca Crowell of Dallas is executive director and CEO of Nexus Recovery Center. Debra "Debbie" Fesperman of Sherman is a licensed chemical dependency counselor and program coordinator for the Grayson County Community Supervision and Corrections Department STAR Recovery and Family Court. Tara George of Houston is an assistant Harris County district attorney and a prosecutor for the Success Through Addiction Recovery Court STAR program. Dibrell "Dib" Waldrip of New Braunfels is judge of the 433rd Judicial District Court.

The governor named Ben Raimer of Galveston chairman and appointed 13 members to the Texas Institute of Health Care Quality and Efficiency Board of Directors. Raimer is a board certified pediatrician and senior vice president and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Joel Allison of Dallas is president and CEO of Baylor Health Care System. Steven Berkowitz of Austin is founder and president of SMB Health Consulting. Patrick Carter of Houston is medical director of care coordination and quality improvement at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. Alexia Green of Ransom Canyon is a professor and dean emeritus at the Texas Tech University Health Science Center Anita Thigpen Perry School of Nursing. Michael "Ted" Haynes of Sachse is a certified public accountant and vice president of Health Care Delivery for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. Robyn Jacobson is CEO of Entrust Inc. and EnCore System Professionals Inc. John Joe of Houston is a physician and chief medical information officer at St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System. Ronald Luke of Austin is president of Research and Planning Consultants. Elena Marin of Brownsville is CEO of Su Clinica Familiar and an associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center Lower Rio Grande Valley Area Health Education Center. Beverly Nuckols of New Braunfels is a board-certified family physician in private practice. Thomas Quirk of Dallas is CEO of United Healthcare for Texas and Oklahoma. Alan Stevens of Belton is director of Scott and White Healthcare’s Center for Applied Health Research and a professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine at Temple. Susan Strate of Wichita Falls is a practicing physician and medical consultant, and medical director of several clinical laboratories in North Texas.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst reappointed Dr. Joseph S. Bailes to the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas Oversight Committee. Bailes is a medical oncologist with experience in legislation, public policy and advocacy.

Press corps moves: Aman Batheja, laid off by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is joining The Texas Tribune in Austin, where he'll report on transportation, budget and politics.